What’s the greatest Tamil language novel? Don’t be surprised if the most common answer to this question is: Ponniyin Selvan. A cult classic in its own right, this novel by Kalki Krishnamurthy was first serialised in the 1950s in the popular magazine Kalki. In the four years of its publication, it not only contributed to skyrocketing sales for the magazine but also immortalised Tamil literature.
But what’s so special about it? How did Ponniyin Selvan reflect and fuel Indian patriotism? We dig deep (and slowly make our way through the book) to find out its cultural and literary significance, and soon, we are sure of its cinematic significance.
Ponniyin Selvan is not the average linear story, in which one character’s journey and motivations take centre stage, peppered with appearances from side characters. No, one of the most intriguing parts of Ponniyin Selvan is that almost all of the characters are afforded the same treatment as the main character. They all star in their own stories, and we see their stories through the eyes of Vandiyathevan.
Vandiyathevan is the primary narrator of this story. Not in the sense that he literally narrates the story, but that he ties each individual story together. We witness other characters through his story, as they deal with their own problems and storylines.
Ponniyin Selvan follows the turbulent period of Chola’s history when the kingdom was in a decline and besieged by internal and external threats. The main character of the story is Raja Raja Chola, of the 10th century Chola Dynasty, who was the people’s choice for the throne. The story follows the Cholas and their attempts to stabilise their kingdom, while hidden enemies plot to destroy it and establish their own Pandya kingdom.
This 2100-page book contains stories within stories and multiple plotlines that merge into one epic finale. The story generally jumps between Vandiyathevan’s point of view (POV) throughout the Chola regions as he fulfils his task and Raja Raja Chola’s POV in Sri Lanka.
We also follow Raja Raja Chola’s sister Kundavai’s attempts to bring her brother back to take the throne in order to stabilise the kingdom. Meanwhile, Nandini – the wife of the chancellor – plots revenge against the Chola royal family by helping their enemies.
Significance and Reception
Now that we’ve got a brief glimpse of what the story is about, we get to answer the pressing question: What makes it so special?
Ponniyin Selvan is certainly not the first or last historical novel. What sets it apart, however, is how Krishnamurthy brings the story to life. Figures like Raja Raja Chola, Vandiyathevan, and even the scheming Nandini are such larger-than-life characters that it’s impossible to put the book down once you begin.
Since the book was serialised in the 1950s, it’s held an iron grip on the entirety of Tamil Nadu. Entire families would wait with bated breath for the next week’s edition, debating the story, its plotline, and possible future scenarios in the same way we gossip about national news. Group reading sessions would be held in town squares and public areas – the most organic kind of book club. Narrators would read the story aloud to those who could not read. The weekly release of the new chapter of Ponniyin Selvan was treated like a national event.
The fact that this novel was released in weekly editions also helped in increasing its appeal. Had the entire 2000+ page novel been released at once, it would have likely received a lukewarm reception at best. Since it was first released less than 5 years after India gained independence, the average literacy rate was quite low. So a massive novel like this would have most probably been ignored.
Another point in its favour was the story. Apart from the popular characters, epic storyline, and complex plots, the story heavily featured a positive attitude towards the ancient Indian kingdom of the Cholas. Coming hot on the heels of a long, difficult independence movement, the people of India were ready for something positive. Something epic. Something that shows Indians triumphing over their enemies. Ponniyin Selvan delivered that and more, all neatly wrapped up in yellowing papers.
Ponniyin Selvan came at the right moment to capitalise on India’s need for a story of an Indian victory. In a way, it reflected the Indian freedom struggle and reminded people that Indians have always fought for their freedom. And it reminded them of something far more important – that we will continue to fight for love, freedom, and the love of our home.
The release of Ponniyin Selvan marked a turning point in Tamil literature. Most literature of the preceding century had centred on the Indian freedom struggle and colonialism. While this certainly helped to galvanise an entire country against its oppressors, it wasn’t entirely wanted in the post-independence euphoria. Ponniyin Selvan book not only inspired other historical fiction novels but also produced a thrilling, Game Of Thrones-esque saga (way before most fantasy writers used history as a source) that showcased the triumphant attitudes of a post-independence India.
Ponniyin Selvan is not just a historical novel, it almost acted like a mirror showing contemporary events. The struggle to sustain a dying empire, treachery from within, and charismatic leaders – the Indian freedom movement mirrored in this semi-fictionalised story set centuries ago. The story includes all of the elements used in the best Indian stories – a strong cultural undertone, larger-than-life historical characters, and a battle that fully captures the political and social nuances of its time.
Not only was Ponniyin Selvan incredibly successful, but it inspired many future Tamil books, while still paying homage to traditional Tamil literature. The themes covered in the book – love, deception, politics, and more – turned it from an ordinary piece of historical fiction to an unforgettable part of Tamil literature.
Are you ready for its cinematic adaptation?